The Archfiend Artifact

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16

AEON HEADQUARTERS, MABON CITY

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 22
6:37 AM


At long last, an answer to a riddle now a decade old.

Taboo.

An assassin sent after my father because somebody had their panties in a bunch. The person responsible for turning my life into a living hell.

Taboo.

A torrent of barely-contained emotions surged through my veins. Hate. Rage. Pain. All kept carefully hidden behind a mask void of emotion. It wouldn’t do me or my parents any good getting childishly emotional but this revelation. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to break down in front of these weidos.

I cast a glance around the room, noting how everyone had their eyes locked on me. Obviously, they were awaiting my reaction. I didn’t know what to say to them. Did I even have to say anything? Then the words of the demon in my dreams came back to me. Why were you the only survivor?

And I stunned the room when I calmly asked, “If this Taboo is such a brutal killer, how come I’m still here?”

A handful of seconds ticked by while they recovered from their stupor. Then Duncan cleared his throat. “Vhat can you remember from that night?”

I felt my lips stretch into a frown, and I stared at Duncan for a beat. I hated talking about it. Hated being forced to relive that terror. But if it provided me answers, then… “We had been travelling, so I went to bed early that night. It was dark out when a scream woke me. Then I heard sounds of a struggle. I hid under my bed just as an explosion rocked the house. Everything grew hot and I must have blacked out because the next thing I remember is being in the arms of a cop as she rushed me to an ambulance.”

Duncan nodded solemnly. “Morgan,” he gestured to the blonde on the couch, and she looked up from her tablet for a moment. “and I must have arrived on scene mere minutes after the ambulance rushed you avay. Vhat ve saw vas a house leveled and burning, so ve vere not expecting any survivors. How you managed it is…” He shook his head, clearly at a loss.

“There is no explanation for it,” said Specter. “It should have been impossible for a child of five to survive the onslaught that tore through the house that night. You really don’t remember what happened between the explosion and the ambulance?”

I shook my head. I had spent countless nights trying to remember, but never got anywhere. Something must have happened during those missing minutes. Something important. Or gruesome. The latter made more sense. I could have seen or done something so horrible that my memory blocked it out entirely to save me the anguish of reliving it.

I sighed, looked to Duncan. “So Taboo is dead?”

“Since ve have not seen or heard from Taboo since that night, ve suspected that Forlorn, your father, facing his death, put all his energy into von final, desperate attack which took Taboo out of the picture permanently. Up until a few minutes ago, ve thought Forlorn had done that because of his duty to AEON. Now, I believe he sacrificed himself to save you.”

I swallowed the lump in my throat, shifted my gaze to my father’s face still on the screen. His crimson gaze stared right back, and I could swear he looked sadder than he had a few moments ago.

Maybe I just imagined it.

I tore my gaze away to look at Duncan. “Are you certain?”

“As certain as ve can be,” he said after a moment. “As I said, ve haven’t seen or heard anything regarding him ever since that night he attacked your family.”

His words didn’t exactly inspire confidence, and just the thought of this Taboo monster still running around further infuriated me. My voice was like a snake bite as I said, “In other words, there’s a slight chance that he might be alive?”

“I highly doubt it,” muttered Quinn. He seemed to gulp when I turned my gaze upon him, and he covered the reaction with a quick smile. “Forlorn wasn’t known for pulling his punches in a fight. Even against allies, as Sin can testify.”

Morgan scoffed, glanced up from her spot on the couch. “I wouldn’t trust anything that psychopath says.”

Quinn shot her a look before he continued. “See, Forlorn was a member of AEON’s Team Alpha. They are some of the most powerful beings on the planet, and many of them are Firsts— the first of their kind; the origins of their parathropic species.

“In terms of power, Forlorn made them look like cowans. So you can probably imagine the fury he unleashed on Taboo when he was desperate to save you.” He chuckled lightly. “I bet it was quite the spectacle to see your father kicking Taboo’s sorry ass straight back to Hell.”

I chewed over his words in the silence that followed. Everything he said made sense, and I wanted to believe him, but something felt off. What if my father’s attack hadn’t been enough to destroy Taboo? Could that monster be out there right now, sending these demons after me out of revenge? Or, worse, what if someone else is after me to avenge Taboo’s death? An unknown person with unknown power and a vendetta sounds like something from a horror flick. But this ain’t the movies; this is as real as the ship I’m standing in.

“Fear not, Miss Sta—”

“Don’t call me that.”

Duncan closed his mouth. Opened it as if to say something, decided against it. He sighed through his nose, tapped his index finger against the top of his desk. After five taps, he said, “Ve vill protect you. So long as you are aboard the ship, no demon vill ever be able to find you.”

My eyes narrowed. It wasn’t the thought of a demon finding me that had me terrified; it was my grandmother. And I told him that.

Duncan flashed a too-white smile. “That has already been taken care of. Specter, if you would, please.”

The ghost fiddled with his weird, glowing ball for a moment, and the photos of my parents vanished. A newspaper article took their place on the screen. My eyes danced over the page, lingering longest on the photograph of a burning wreck somewhere. I read the headline.

Plane Bound for Chicago Crashes, 153 Dead

“Ve added your name to the passenger manifest,” explained Duncan, prompting me to glance sidelong at him. “As of 9:48 Tuesday morning, Cybil Golanv Starr is dead.”

A wave of unfamiliar emotion washed over me. I was dead. Agilisi would no longer search for me. At long last, I had my freedom. I could live my life the way I wanted. For the first time in a decade, I felt like I could breathe. I wanted to cheer. To dance. Is this what relief feels like?

Then a strange thought hit me.

I could attend my own funeral. I’d probably be the only one to show up, but I could be there. Hopefully, they’ll bury me next to my parents… wherever they were. I should find them before I leave Mabon City.

I nearly jumped out of my skull when a trio of precise knocks hammered against the door frame behind me. Morgan’s voice grated on my ears like silverware scratching china as she stood and said, “Commander Cartouche.”

I cast a glance over my shoulder. A little girl stood at the threshold, her golden eyes scanning the room from beneath bangs of purest white. White silken robes and glimmering silver armor half concealed her unmarred, gingerbread cookie-colored skin. She couldn’t have been more than twelve, yet something about her brought tears to my eyes and fear to my heart.

“Ah, Cartouche,” Duncan’s voice sounded friendly enough to untrained ears, but I could detect a hint of unease concealed beneath his nearly-forgotten accent. “Vhat brings you all the way to the Mortal Realm?”

The little girl moved with liquid gracefulness as she strode into the room. An air of command buzzed around her like it would a five star general, and I got the impression that she was much, much older than she appeared.

“A theft occurred in your jurisdiction early yesterday,” she said, her voice quiet and strong at the same time, and held out a folder.

Duncan took it with a frown. “Another one?”

“Why would WEIRD be called in on a theft in this realm?” Specter asked. “You guys gave AEON full jurisdiction over the Mortal Realm nearly thirty years ago.”

Cartouche shrugged a shoulder. “Probably because whomever called it in didn’t know that AEON deals with demons as well.”

“Demons?” Duncan flipped open the file, scanned it. He found something that made him appear as though his heart skipped a beat… if he had a pulse, that is. He looked up from the page. “Are you certain of this address?”

Cartouche jerked her head in a curt nod.

The vampire passed the file to Quinn, whose jaw dropped a moment into reading the report. He looked up at Duncan. “Isn’t that Cynthia’s estate?”

Specter groaned. “What did Cynthia go and get herself into this time?”

“Thank you, Cartouche,” said Duncan, “for bringing this to our attention. Ve vill take it from here.”

The little girl turned to leave and locked eyes with me in the process. Though her face never betrayed emotion, I could practically sense her immediate dislike. In a tone as neutral as mauve, she said, “You look familiar. Do you have an elder brother?”

I almost laughed. “Nope.”

She ’huh’ed and quit the room without another word.

“Fenrir.” Duncan’s voice snatched my attention away from the strange girl.

“Yeah?”

“Ve have a rather large caseload to deal vith, so I think it vould be a good idea to escort Mis—” he cleared his throat. “Cybil back to her room. Plus, she has a good deal to think about.”

“Oh,” said Quinn, setting the file on Duncan’s desk. “Yeah.” Then he smiled at me. “Come on, kiddo, let’s get you back to your dorm room.”

I started after Quinn, paused at the threshold. I cast a look back at Duncan, but his attention had shifted to the file. In the silence, I could hear his pen scrawling across paper as he made notes.

“By the way,” I said. He glanced at me before continuing his writing. “Khione found me earlier.” The scratching ceased. “She gave me three days to find the person responsible for stealing some antique mirror from Elysium or she’ll take my head instead.”

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